Students at RMIT are outraged that a faculty member is set to speak at a forum on gay conversion therapy in June.
Dr Caroline Norma, from the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, is on the lineup for an online panel which will “explore the major concerns around the proposed ban” on gay conversion therapy in Victoria.
The panel is being organised by the Australian Christian Lobby, which also helped lead the campaign against marriage equality back in 2017.
“This online event poses a very serious risk to the well-being of the LGBTQIA+ students and staff across Victoria,” the RMIT University Student Union’s Queer Department said in a statement.
“RMIT carries huge a responsibility for the well-being and safety of everyone across campus, especially staff and students that identity as LGBTQIA+, queer or questioning. RMIT should also hold accountable the actions of students and staff that are representing the university.
“The participation of Dr Caroline Norma in this panel as a representative of RMIT University directly contradicts the RMIT’s Diverse Genders, Sexes, and Sexualities Action Plan.”
Norma lectures masters students in translating and interpreting. Her research relates to interpreting in the field of child protection services, among other areas such as domestic violence.
On Facebook, hundreds of students reacted to the news in RMIT StalkerSpace, an unofficial group to discuss student life.
“Last week was RMIT Pride Week. This week it’s gay conversion therapy. So proud to see our university’s name on something like this,” the post sarcastically read.
“This definitely needs to be taken to the administration,” said one commenter.
“I’m taking a science degree at a scientific institution, having lecturers peddling mysticism devalues the scientific integrity of the degree I’m paying for,” said another.
“It makes me embarrassed to be part of the same school as someone who believes that, and if they were a lecturer or tutor or even associated around me I would definitely feel quite unsafe,” replied another person.
In 2019, students at the University of Sydney signed an open letter calling for Norma to be kicked off a panel on sex work for comments which they found to be transphobic and whorephobic.
A spokesperson from RMIT confirmed the uni is “currently looking into the matter, in line with RMIT’s intellectual freedom policy.”
“RMIT remains as committed as ever to being a place that values diversity and inclusion and provides a safe and respectful environment to work and study,” they said.
Norma did not respond to requests for comment.
Another academic, Professor John Whitehall, who leads the Paediatrics and Child Health unit at Western Sydney University, is also set to be on the panel.
While no WSU students have publicly condemned his appearance, P.TV has contacted the uni’s SRC for comment.
In an email to P.TV, Whitehall maintained that receiving help with “unwanted mental preoccupations”, including certain sexual orientations, is a “human right”.
Whitehall has been a vocal defender of conversion therapy for many years.
Gay conversion therapy is widely-discredited in the medical community and considered to be harmful. The International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims even considers conversion therapy to be a form of torture.
The Australian Psychological society has long called for the practice to be banned nationwide.
“There is no clinical evidence demonstrating that approaches that claim to change a person’s sexual orientation are effective,” the organisation’s position statement says.
“There is, however, a considerable body of evidence documenting the negative effects of stigma associated with homosexuality, including higher rates of depression.
“There is also clinical evidence that reparative, conversion and ex-gay approaches can compound the challenges already faced by some lesbians and gay men. For example, the ‘failure’ of such approaches can further contribute to negative mental health outcomes.”
Gay conversion therapy is already banned in Brazil, Ecuador, Germany, Malta, Switzerland and Uruguay. It’s also outlawed in 20 US states and three Canadian provinces. Argentina, Fiji and Samoa also have broader laws which prohibit diagnosis based on sexuality.
Victoria is currently working on a specific ban, with Premier Daniel Andrews calling it “bigoted quackery” last year.
In addition to Victoria, similar laws are being considered in the ACT, Queensland and Western Australia.
However, the process has stalled around Australia, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Survivors such as Chris Csabs are currently leading the change to have gay conversion therapy outlawed around Australia.
But in the meantime, they have to deal with obstacles like the ACL panel.Image: Getty Images / Kok Kai Ng | Twitter / @CarolineNorma76